“Normally, that is an infraction covered by laws governing trespassing, and the guilty party is subject to paying for damages caused by the fire – if the neighboring land belongs to an ordinary citizen…But not when a vindictive federal government is involved.”
Opinion: William Perry Pendley
Trump should pardon Oregon ranchers — They aren’t terrorists
In April, President Trump pardoned I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby Jr., top aide to former Vice President Dick Cheney, who was convicted in an abuse of prosecutorial discretion. Now the president should do the same thing for Dwight L. Hammond, Jr., 76, and his son Steven Dwight Hammond, 49, long-suffering ranchers in rural Oregon.
The Hammonds were charged with terrorism and sentenced in 2015 to five years in prison, despite the outraged protests of ranchers and other citizens.
The Oregonian, the state’s left-leaning newspaper, said in a January 2016 editorial: “The Hammonds broke the law and deserve to be punished” but said their sentence was excessive and that the president (then Barack Obama) “should consider” granting them clemency.
The Hammonds are the victims of one of the most egregious, indefensible and intolerable instances of prosecutorial misconduct in history. Their situation cries out for justice that can come only from President Trump.
The Hammonds’ crime? They set a legally permissible fire on their own property, which accidentally burned out of control onto neighboring federal land. Normally, that is an infraction covered by laws governing trespassing, and the guilty party is subject to paying for damages caused by the fire – if the neighboring land belongs to an ordinary citizen.
But not when a vindictive federal government is involved.
The Hammonds are cattle ranchers in southeastern Oregon’s Harney County, the state’s largest, but home to fewer than 8,000 people who eke out a living. The federal government owns 75 percent of the land in the county.
Congress passed the 1996 law in response to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing to “deter terrorism.” Lawmakers did not have in mind a rancher’s efforts to eradicate noxious weeds or to prevent the spread of a lightning fire onto valuable crops.
The Hammond Ranch is near the unincorporated community of Diamond, with fewer than 100 residents. Located on Steens Mountain since it was established in 1964, the ranch is made up of 12,872 acres of deeded private land. Dwight Hammond began running the ranch in his early 20s; for his son, it is the only life he knows.
Like most Western ranches in federally dominated counties, the Hammond Ranch holds grazing rights on nearby federal land. In this case, that is 26,421 acres managed by the Bureau of Land Management of the U.S. Department of the Interior.
In the “high desert” environment of Harney County – and throughout the West – federal, state and private landowners use controlled or prescribed burns for prairie restoration, forest management and to reduce the buildup of underbrush that could fuel much bigger fires.
But sometimes the controlled fires get out of control and sweep onto neighbors’ land. That is legally deemed a trespass, and the landowner who set the fire is liable for any damages.
Only the federal government has the power to cite the trespasser criminally for his or her actions. That is what happened to the Hammonds.
It did not happen in a vacuum. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has long coveted the Hammond Ranch for inclusion in its surrounding Malheur Wildlife Refuge. The federal agency pressured members of the Hammond family for decades to follow all of their neighbors in selling their property to the federal government.
For their part, Bureau of Land Management officials, agents and armed rangers too often have had an adversarial and thorny relationship with ranchers and grazing permittees, which worsened during the Obama administration.
In 2001, after alerting the Bureau of Land Management, the Hammonds set a legal fire to eradicate noxious weeds. It spread onto 139 acres of vacant federal land. According to a government witness, the fire actually improved the federal land, as natural fires often do.
In 2006, Steven Hammond started another prescribed fire in response to several blazes ignited by a lightning storm near his family’s field of winter feed. The counter-blaze burned a single acre of federal land. According to Steven Hammond’s mother, “the backfire worked perfectly, it put out the fire, saved the range and possibly our home.”
“We thought we lived in America where you have one trial and you have one sentencing.” She said that federal officials “just keep playing political, legal mind games with people and people’s lives.”
The Bureau of Land Management took a different view. It filed a report with Harney County officials alleging several violations of Oregon law. However, after a review of the evidence, the Harney County district attorney dropped all charges in 2006.
The Bureau of Land Management did not give up. In 2011, federal prosecutors – referencing both the 2001 and 2006 fires – charged the Hammonds with violating the ‘‘Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996,” which carries a mandatory minimum prison sentence of five years.
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